The low growl of 'choppers flying over the hooch drowned out Steve's noise, but only for a moment.
"Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Jingle up my way - " sang Steve as he danced around wearing his impromptu Christmas costume.
"Hey, Steve. Shut the hell up!" I tightened down the last screw on my rifle stock.
Steve made an obscene gesture and sang even louder.
"You look ridiculous." Steve wore nothing but two Santa Claus hats, one on his head and one over his privates.
He lit a cigarette and blew a smoke ring in my direction. "Where's your Christmas Spirit, asshole?"
"Right here. Got the new fiberglass stock." I held up my XM21 Sniper rifle and ran a hand lovingly over the weapon.
Steve rolled his eyes. "Wow, Santa must think you were a good boy. Now come on and get dressed! The USO show is due to start in an hour and I want to get a seat up front."
I gestured to the lower of the two Santa hats. "Hoping a USO girl will fall in your lap?"
"Fall in? They'll be jumping in."
"You've got a better chance of Bob Hope falling on you."
Steve grinned. "As long as he brings a girl with him."
He flipped his lit cigarette at my crotch. "Come on, asshole. Get dressed."
"I'm not going." I brushed the butt off my cot and shook my head. "I'm going to take baby here out for a stroll." I patted my rifle's stock.
Steve's brows wrinkled. "You're nuts. Besides, there's a Christmas truce, remember? You won't even get out the gate."
"They don't honor our truce, so I don't either." I leaned closer and lowered my voice. "Remember that gate guard who owes me for taking the sniper off his back? Well, he's on duty now. He said he'd let me out."
Steve again shook his head. "You're totally nuts, man. A gone goooose -" This last he sang at the top of his lungs. He laughed and did a little soft-shoe dance. "Come on. Come to the show."
I shook my head.
Steve's face fell, worry lines popping out on his brow. "Man, I'm not going with you, and you know you shouldn't go alone."
"I'll be all right."
He'd been my spotter for only a month and I could tell the stress was getting to him. He had thought sniper duty would be an easy gig with lots of time off.
He was wrong.
Steve fired a few "F" laden expletives in my direction and began dressing.
I had my gear packed and was applying camouflage makeup by the time Steve left. "Have a good time," I said to his back. He didn't turn or acknowledge my farewell.
I checked my magazine for the third time, wacking it so the cartridges were well seated toward the back and started thinking about getting a new partner. Steve was young and this was his first tour. I didn't think he really liked what we did. He just didn't see the big picture. Each enemy we took out meant that a few more of our guys might make it home. We were like doctors saving lives. Steve was just another boy influenced by John Wayne movies that glorified war. He didn't see the big picture. He only saw the blood and the "dishonor" — as if there were ever any honor in war.
Crossing the compound, I heard cheers and laughter from the parade ground as the show began. I shuddered, thinking of all those guys crowded together in one spot. A couple of rockets would make for a very bad Christmas. Maybe I could prevent that.
"Hi, Duke. I'm going out for a walk."
The sentry nodded. "Where's your partner?"
"He's peeking in the USO girls' dressing room."
Duke smiled. "That place has more guards on it than the main gate today. We even had to put guards on the guards." Duke shook his head and his smile dropped. "You be careful out there. And remember, I didn't let you out."
I flipped him a one-finger salute and trotted toward the tree line. Once safely in the shadows, I breathed a sigh of relief. The cleared ground between the gate and the trees was always the most dangerous - both in and out.
Moving quietly, I made my way through the woods to the trail crossing I had been observing but not hunting. I had wanted to give that zone the impression of safety. Time to shatter illusions. I crawled into position, only a hundred yards from the intersection, and began to wait.
Waiting is the hardest part for most snipers. To me, it was a big part of the hunt, the orchestra building to the climax. Most shooters just got bored. My senses always heightened during this time. I felt part of everything around me. The buzzing of a fly, the flap of a bird's wing, I felt in tune with all. Handing out death to get in touch with life might be twisted, but it was something I'd accepted long ago.

A bush at the intersection rustled and a black-clad gook stepped onto the trail. He was carrying an old M-1 carbine slung over his back. He didn't have the red bandana of an ARVN trooper so he was fair game. I raised the stock to my shoulder as he halted in the intersection and lit a cigarette. I smiled. His overconfidence was going to be the death of him.
He squatted, as if waiting for someone. This stayed my trigger-finger as a recent thought came back to mind. I'd always wanted to try getting two heads with one bullet. This could be the perfect opportunity to try. A two-for-one shot would give me bragging rights. With only twenty-three confirmed kills, I'd never make it into the record books but a two-for-one might give me an honorable mention. I decided to wait and give it a try.
The target stood and looked down the trail away from my position. Good. The second target would be right in line with my first shot. This was going to be fun. He fidgeted, then began pacing. "Come on, you bastard," I whispered to myself. "Stand still. Where's that famed oriental patience?"
As if on cue, he stopped moving and gazed down the trail. Someone was coming. A second black-clad person appeared on the trail. They paused for a moment, then ran and embraced.
I brought the scope up to my eye. I had mis-dialed the scope. It was set at maximum zoom. The close up parallax view revealed the side of a feminine face and a hand tucking a length of dark hair behind an ear.
My world froze. It was the same gesture and hair color I'd known so well in another place and time. It was Karen. Her hair, her ear, her hand. I dialed back the scope and watched the couple. It wasn't Karen. It was a pretty Vietnamese woman. Her resemblance to the girl I'd never see again was only in hair color and gestures. Karen was gone, killed by a drunk driver. My heart would never again be lifted by her wonderful smile. A thousand sweet memories I'd forgotten or forced away years ago poured into my head as I watched the couple on the trail.
After the embrace and a long kiss, they began to talk quietly, aware only of each other. In a rush, I remembered what that was like. I remembered nighttime talks that lasted until the sun rose. I remembered what it was to feel something other than hate, sorrow and regret. I remembered friendship, togetherness and most of all, love. This time, thoughts of Karen brought feelings of sweetness, not sadness.
The man moved directly in front of the woman and hugged her. I raised the rifle, sighted on the back of his head and tried to pull the trigger. My hand wouldn't work. It felt numb. I couldn't fire the rifle. It was like squeezing a rock. My hand shook from the effort. My breath came in short ragged gasps until I could no longer take the pressure.
Lowering the rifle, I lay in the brush, feeling as if my body had turned to water and was draining away. Exhaustion wracked my body.
I lifted my head and watched the couple embrace one last time. Then, with hands touching as long as they could, they went down separate trails.
"Merry Christmas," I whispered to their backs.
I was drenched in sweat and tired, but was filled with a sense of relief. I stared at the rifle in my hand like it was a foreign object. It looked strange, as if I'd never seen it before.
During the walk back, my feelings solidified. Things were different. I was different. The return to base didn't seem to take long at all.
"Hey! Good to see you made it back O.K." Duke smiled then winked. "Give out any - Christmas presents?"
"Nope." I looked back over my shoulder at the tree line and shook my head. Then I smiled at Duke. "But I did get one."
I headed towards the laughter coming from the USO show.